Indonesia’s Dr. Cigarettes thumbs nose at ‘Western’ science

Cancer cure, anyone?

The Jakarta Post has given the front page of its feature section, with a spill on the following page, to the claims of that “strange granny” Gretha Zahar about cancer cures and “divine cigarettes”. But instead of debunking her, the Post leaves its readers with the impression that Zahar might be onto something. The uncritical, unthinking headline says it all: “Divine cigarettes used to treat cancer”.

Journalists have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to reporting about science and medicine, but I still find it amazing that a metropolitan broadsheet in a major Asian capital could be so dismissive of the fundamental importance of the scientific method, and so blithe in its reporting on putative cures or treatments for a horrible disease that afflicts so many people. Maybe I just shouldn’t expect anything better.

I’ve already written about this in earlier blogs, but just to re-cap, Zahar claims to have found a treatment for cancer that involves asking her patients to smoke cigarettes. Yep, you got it. Patients who have never smoked, or who may have quit the habit, along with those who may have contracted cancer through smoking, are encouraged to light up cigarettes fitted with special filters which she has developed using “nanotechnology”. The filters, she claims, remove toxins from the “divine cigarettes”, and the subsequent smoke draws cancer-causing free-radicals out of the body through the skin. Combined with a bit of “traditional” massage using certain oils and residues, and some blowing of “divine” smoke over the skin by the good doctor herself, and hey presto goodbye cancer! Oh, and it works pretty well on autism as well!!

She reckons she’s treated thousands of people this way, but refuses to publish her research in peer-reviewed journals:

Gretha … was not interested in seeking acknowledgment [sic] from international scientists. She said the findings in her 13-year PhD research on bi-radical development had not been given any consideration.

“I say that’s a waste of time (seeking acknowledgement from international scientists),” she said. “What’s my purpose? I want to help people. Do I need to announce that everywhere?

“Do we need proof from abroad that this country is special? If people consider you as tempeh [simple soybean cake], that’s good enough,” she said, lashing out on the Western medical sector’s perception of Indonesian scientists.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad, sad for Indonesian scientists who understand the value of evidence and sad for all those cancer sufferers who might be desperate enough to light up a “divine cigarette”. If the PhD-holding nano-doctor truly wants to help people, why doesn’t she encourage critical international examination of her theories so that all those millions of cancer sufferers around the world can benefit? If you want to help people, good doctor, you should announce your potential cure everywhere.

Note the perverse nationalism that she uses to justify her unscientific attitude, as if any request for evidence to back up her claims is just a manifestation of the “Western medical sector’s” prejudices against Indonesians. It’s so absurd I almost don’t know why I’m writing about it, except that smoking kills 400,000 Indonesians every year and the country has turned itself into a playground for Big Tobacco.

The Post’s website carries comments by one of her disciples who claims to have received incredible health benefits from Zahar’s magic cigarettes. The 71-year-old’s biggest backer appears to be Australian businessman John Clapham, who says “divine cigarettes” helped his battle with cancer.

Whatever the truth behind Zahar’s claims, whatever her motives and the motives of those who trumpet her activities, we should be very suspicious until there is credible scientific evidence to prove that “divine cigarettes” treat or cure anything. And until then, The Jakarta Post should be mindful of just how harmful false hopes can be.

(Photo courtesy of MartijnL via Wikimedia Commons)


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